I narrowly avoided sugar shock while attending a recent high school graduation ceremony - though I might have a stress injury due to repeatedly rolling my eyeballs. One speaker seemed pretty sure that all of the graduates would take the “world by storm,” and that the class contained not only the next U.S. president, but also a future senator, Oscar winner and Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Another speaker – using the sports analogy of a perfect game – assured the graduates they could achieve whatever they wanted as long as they knew what “pitches to throw.”
At the other extreme, Massachusetts English teacher David McCullough told graduates of Wellesley High School that “none of you is special.” He drove his point home with a dizzying array of statistics that would make any human – even an invincible 18-year-old - feel like an ant. (Did you know that 3.2 million students graduated from 37,000 U.S. high schools this year?)
Author Lisa Bloom took another tack in a recent Huffington Post blog making one giant apology on behalf of all the adults who have messed up the economy and ruined the chances of the next generation. The contrite Bloom served up all-too-familiar economic data describing the bleak outlook facing young Americans.
It’s time for me to roll up my sleeves and lay out my own high school graduation speech. What would it say?
First and foremost, high school graduation is a legitimate celebration and rite of passage calling for a few congratulatory remarks. After all, not everyone sails through high school – despite all the coddling that takes place – and not all students make it to graduation. The America’s Promise Alliance tells us that one of every four U.S. public high school students drops out before graduation. So congratulations, to those who’ve earned their diplomas. Your efforts will be rewarded with better chances for employment and higher salaries.
The brief praise would be followed by an even briefer reality check: High school is to the real world, what a gold fish is to a piranha. No point in dwelling on the negative, though. The nation has a plethora of doomsayers, and high school students are scared enough as it is. They may be covered in bubble wrap, but they keenly sense their precarious position in the world. This year’s high school graduates need encouragement, not the false hopes offered up in a traditional graduation speech, nor excoriation or gloom-and-doom forecasts. They need to be reminded that high school has helped prepared them for the next step.
After all, high school isn’t one long picnic, but rather four years of academic stress, co-curricular challenges and intense social pressure – and many students complete this endurance event despite a chaotic home and community. The high school years are a time of exuberant discovery and colossal failure: flubbing a game-winning play, failing that first exam, not getting a part in the school play, being turned down for the Homecoming dance. High school students learn the world doesn’t end, even when it feels like it’s going to. They get up and try again.
I would remind the young adults making up this year’s graduating class that they are tough, that high school has taught them resiliency, given them the skills to persevere and, with hard work, succeed. My graduation speech would say - to borrow from the real president, “No, you haven’t made it yet. But, yes, you can.”
I would end with, “Class of 2012, I believe in you.”
What would your graduation speech sound like?